Time heals…love advice from the New York Times

140225101258-largeOn Valentine’s Day the venerable New York Times, ran a piece about how to handle heartbreak on this particularly charged day of the year. As a sensitive soul, and someone who quite often sucks at the messier aspects of life, I was interested in how these ‘experts’ have dealt with what is surely one of the most painful (and universal) emotional experiences a human can have in their lifetime. Some of the overarching themes include the healing power of baths, of escaping, of not escaping, of sugary food and crying. And of course, letting time, that great healer, work its magic.

Dan Savage, American media personality known for his no-nonsense advice, prescribes wallowing in the awfulness of it all for two weeks and then snapping out of it. Fake happiness to feel better and when your bruised heart has healed a little, go for the rebound. That’s what he did and he ended up marrying his.

Chilean writer Isabel Allende takes a tougher stance. She advocates eliminating the lover completely from one’s life, not even mentioning their name. When the door is completely closed, she then heals herself slowly with a combination of cuddling her dog, eating chocolate and taking long baths. In her own words, “I believe that everything changes in two years. A broken heart either kills you or heals within in two years. It’s usually the latter.”

Writer Dinaw Mengetsu is a fan of fleeing. Far, far away. The further the better, as that way, there won’t be all those reminders of your loved one to rub salt into your wound. However, it’s also a time for being alone and regrouping. As he says, “And if you have traveled far enough, you will know for certain that nothing and no one is coming to save you; this grief is yours alone to revel in.”

Writer Alexandra Fuller has advice for the ‘heartbruised’ (which is not as severe as heartbreak). Her tips are practical and specific: make a soundtrack that can both empower and let you wallow. Get outside and volunteer with animals. Stay the hell away from social media. Indulge in British dramas – because apparently the British have an aversion to portraying love, so it’s a safe option.

Comedian Chris Gethard (?!) tells a story about how he dealt with his latest heartbreak – an eventful trip to Brazil involving Rio nightclubs, celebrities, art, dodgy street food and reflection. As he puts it, “Which is a long way of saying: Take it easy on yourself, make a lot of mistakes, and go as far as you need to in order to see your situation with some clarity.”

Actress and writer Isabel Gillies knows what she’s talking about. I read her two memoirs – the first about her husband leaving her and their two young boys for his coworker (major scandal at snooty Oberlin College where they all worked), and the second which outlined her struggle to mend her broken heart and eventually remarry and become deliriously happy once again. Ever the optimist, Ms. Gillies thinks that having a broken heart is good because: “You find out what you are made of when you have a broken heart. If it happens early and often, all the better. You will unearth your grit, your ingenuity and resolve. As brutal and unrelenting as it is, if you are broken hearted, it means that you have loved and loved big.” She recommends physical exercise, baths, jelly donuts and gaining perspective via National Geographic. Finally, she states that: “While you might not be able to see clearly when you are heartbroken, something good is usually right around the corner, so the best idea is to keep rocking on.”

This next one is an interesting case. Helen Fisher is an anthropologist and relationship expert who has studied the physical aspects of love in the manner of a scientist and the emotional and mental aspects. She advocates treating it like an addiction which requires the removal of all reminders and triggers. No contact. Instead, get out and exercise. Do new things with new people. Play, meditate, smile, and above all, be patient. As the scientist in her says, “Time heals, because the activity gradually subsides in a brain region linked with attachment. In a study I did last year, 57 percent of singles said they recovered within three months of a breakup. We are built to love, and love again.”

Foodie Shayma Saadat tells a story of her move to Rome for work – she had ended a relationship before she moved, and recounts her first few days there which transformed from being lonely, depressed and heartbroken to momentarily happy as she hosted a dinner party with her new landlady, cooking favorite dishes and feeling connected with others through the joy of food. “That meal that began in heartbreak reminded me of all the good things in life,” she concludes.

Online dating guru Christian Rudder says dating is essentially a numbers game. “When your heart is broken — and I say when, not if, because it happens to all of us — take solace in the undilutable wonder of infinity. No matter how many people you’ve met, there is whole world of others still out there. The next number, it just might be your lucky one. All you have to do is keep going.” Not sure if I agree with this, but it does give a sense of that most precious thing in times of heartache – hope.

Tracy McMillian, who is considered a relationship expert in part to her own ample experience, has the last word. Her Zen advice goes against some of what the other commentators have said. Her view is that heartbreak is grief and grief doesn’t need distraction. Instead, it needs to be dealt with, not suppressed. This is done by staying in the present moment where lessons can be learned and moving on can be more authentic. “Yes, there will be moments of intense pain. But they will pass relatively quickly. Suffering is often caused more by the fear of what life will be without the relationship, or nostalgia for what has been lost — both essentially fantasies. Staying present also helps you learn what you need to learn — breakups always, always contain lessons — so when you are ready to move on, it can be to something better.”

Leaps of Faith in Venice

10703716_10152232332981853_2837997001685255358_nDuring the Summer of Love, I was fortunate enough to be able to visit one of the most magical and enchanting cities in the world – Venice. Don’t hate me, but it was actually the second time in my whole life. While I spent three days there, two of them alone, I of course became reflective. It had been sixteen years since I had trotted through the labyrinthine streets and over the little ponti. Back then, I had taken a leap of faith and began working for a family near Amsterdam as as au pair. Not long after my arrival, they announced they were going on vacation and I would also have my vacation time. I didn’t have much money so I booked an extremely cheap all-inclusive trip to the coast of Italy, near Venice. It took 24 hours in a bus to get to the ritzy seaside town. It was the kind of trip I could probably only do in my youth. I slept alone in a tent, although it was too hot to sleep. I made friends with three Dutch girls who were also on the trip. They were nurses from a town near the south of Holland. During our time together, we ate a lot of pizza and I felt very European as we strode among the waves at the beach in only our bikini bottoms. Once I got so attacked by mosquitoes that my ankle swelled up to the size of a baseball and I had to be injected with something. At night, we hit the discos, along with hoards of multinational young people – we looked like a giant, drunk United Colours of Benetton ad.

At first I was unnerved by the young, ripped North African men (boys?) dancing in wrought iron cages suspended above the dance floor, and the dancing that looked like it was influenced by National Geographic mating videos. But soon I understood that this  too was grist for the maturing mill. Wait until I tell my friends back home at the end of the world about this! We got to spend only one fleeting day in Venice, but it was like a dream for me – in the sense of being in one and of achieving one. Just a few weeks earlier I had no idea that I would have the opportunity to realize this dream – a childhood fantasy. I have a photo somewhere of me standing in front of the iconic Rialto Bridge, wearing my favorite blue tank top and grey trousers that I bought for $10 dollars in Australia some months earlier when I attended my uncle’s wedding. I have an impish smile on my face and the same long, two toned blond-brown hair that I have now. I was infinitely cooler back then.

And back to the future: I chose the busiest time of year to go. I caught a train directly there and of course got motion sickness on the canal taxi ride to the hotel. Yes, there was no ghetto tent for me this time. I was living the high life and stayed in a very beautiful hotel. I figured it would probably be the last time in my whole life I would visit there and so I splurged. I walked around in a daze, camera in hand, dodging the hoards of other privileged people from all over the world. I got my bearings and walked around and around the narrow streets, just walking, looking, thinking. The food is overpriced here, I thought. The waiters are rude. It’s so commercial, with an H&M and Disney Store tarnishing the elegant buildings that have watched over the canals for hundreds of years.

I went into a quaint little paper store and bought an exquisite little blue notebook from a very well dressed man with silver hair who looked like he’d been working there for about 300 years. I went back to my airy, plush hotel and I wrote in it. I wrote down all my fears and insecurities. I wanted to see myself, to see how I was back in this context after so many years. To see my progress. As the writing spilled onto the paper, I could still see that I had the same issues as that naive eighteen year old girl standing on the bridge. We are two different people but we are the same. I was again taking a leap of faith.

I trudged around. I explored. I escaped the heat in shops and restaurants. I healed an old wound from the first time I was in Venice when I had very little money and couldn’t afford to purchase anything more than some little glass ornaments. I went to a mask store of some renown and it took me about ten minutes to buy four exquisite Venetian masks. Every time I check my bank account I’m reminded that I still have to pay for them. But the highlight, the climax, the crescendo was walking alongside the largest canal one night in the dark, waiting for a boat to arrive. On that boat would be my sweetheart who had worked all day then driven some hours to be with me. At his arrival, we embraced and I shut my eyes tight, never wanting the moment to end. It was perhaps the most fairytale moment of my entire life, and in that one moment, I could say that love, with all its messiness, is worth it.

As I write this, I have just re-read for the third time a favorite memoir of mine by Vanessa Woods that entwines three stories – her personal love story with her husband, their work together in the Congo with Bonobos, and the heartbreaking history of the region. One passage struck me, and I should write it down in that little blue notebook full of my anxieties: ‘If there are those you love, whoever or wherever they are, hold them. Find them and hold them as tightly as you can. Resist their squirming and impatience and uncomfortable laughter and just feel their hearts throbbing against yours and give thanks that for this moment, for this one precious moment, they are here. They are with you. And they know they are utterly, completely, entirely…Loved.’

On a Roll

reflectionNow that my fire for poetry has been reignited, I’m finding striking, mysterious poems everywhere.

What follows is a deceptively simple yet achingly beautiful, nurturing and hopeful case for loving yourself, something that everybody struggles with. It is written by esteemed Caribbean poet, Derek Walcott.

 

 

Love After Love

The time will come
when, with elation
you will greet yourself arriving
at your own door, in your own mirror
and each will smile at the other’s welcome,

and say, sit here. Eat.
You will love again the stranger who was your self.
Give wine. Give bread. Give back your heart
to itself, to the stranger who has loved you

all your life, whom you ignored
for another, who knows you by heart.
Take down the love letters from the bookshelf,

the photographs, the desperate notes,
peel your own image from the mirror.
Sit. Feast on your life.

Also, today Neruda was still on my mind and so I went and reread one of my favorite love poems by him – a majestic piece that expresses so well the ego in love.

If You Forget Me

I want you to know
one thing.

You know how this is:
if I look
at the crystal moon, at the red branch
of the slow autumn at my window,
if I touch
near the fire
the impalpable ash
or the wrinkled body of the log,
everything carries me to you,
as if everything that exists:
aromas, light, metals,
were little boats that sail
toward those isles of yours that wait for me.

Well, now,
if little by little you stop loving me
I shall stop loving you little by little.

If suddenly
you forget me
do not look for me,
for I shall already have forgotten you.

If you think it long and mad,
the wind of banners
that passes through my life,
and you decide
to leave me at the shore
of the heart where I have roots,
remember
that on that day,
at that hour,
I shall lift my arms
and my roots will set off
to seek another land.

But
if each day,
each hour,
you feel that you are destined for me
with implacable sweetness,
if each day a flower
climbs up to your lips to seek me,
ah my love, ah my own,
in me all that fire is repeated,
in me nothing is extinguished or forgotten,
my love feeds on your love, beloved,
and as long as you live it will be in your arms
without leaving mine.

Heroine Worship

Janine di Giovanni

Janine di Giovanni

One woman who has been a big inspiration to me, especially in the height of my idealism in my mid-20s is writer and war correspondent Janine di Giovanni. In fact, I was kind of in awe of her in an almost creepy way – reading everything she wrote and following the turbulent journey of her life online and in print as if we were related.

At the time, I thought what she did was the coolest and most important job in the world (well, maybe except for being a doctor who can save lives). She went into wars all over the world for weeks, sometimes months, at a time and reported from the front lines for the world’s most respected newspapers. I was enamored by her courage and bravery. I agreed with her wholeheartedly when in one of her books on the wars she covered, she wrote about a life changing moment, when, as a young, green reporter in Israel, an Israeli lawyer defending Palestinians told her to “go everywhere, write everything, and give me a brief, a blueprint for life; if you have the chance to give a voice to people who do not have a voice…then you have an obligation.”

She inspired me to start writing and one day, I found myself in a very lucky position as a web reporter for an NGO. I was able to travel to twenty countries around the world reporting on a range of different issues focusing on human rights. Although I never saw the dead bodies or had to find shelter from flying bullets and falling bombs like she did, I saw enough to know that the world is one very fucked up place.

The event that has always stuck in my mind is when I visited Malta. We went to a detention center where refugees and asylum seekers from war-torn and poverty-stricken countries in north Africa had accidentally landed on route to Europe, usually Italy. I hope to revisit this experience in more depth in another post. For now, I just want to say that I was shocked by what had happened to these men – they were being held against their will with absolutely nothing to do all day and had to find ways to pass the time. I saw the loss of dignity they had endured- these tall, strong, capable men were in limbo and weren’t allowed to work legally, and had very little self-determination. The Maltese government were punishing them and would not send them back to Africa, nor forward to Italy. In the meantime, they descended into depression, slowly wasting away.

Then I wrote a little article about it, raised a little bit of awareness but essentially, nothing changed. And really, I couldn’t expect it to. Still, it was a pivotal moment for me. And of course, reality set in, where I realized I did not have even one-tenth of the balls needed to do this on a regular basis, to bear witness to so much pointless suffering. There was also the princess factor – was I really going to go ten days without brushing my teeth, or live without a flushing toilet and no running water like she did? Or being in freezing temperatures without heat in Eastern Europe sleeping on a floor? How about not showering for a week and risking getting shot at, tortured, imprisoned and gang-raped? No thanks.

And now, years later, I have again delved into di Giovanni’s life as I recently discovered she had written a memoir about the disintegration of her marriage to another war correspondent – a French cameraman.

In this book, Ghosts by Daylight: Love, War, and Redemption, she writes very eloquently and poignantly about how all of her and her husband’s harrowing experiences of war catch up with them as they have a baby and start a new life as a married couple in Paris.

One reason this book is so compelling is that she is brutally honest about the messy, unflattering aspects of herself and her marriage. She weaves the narrative back into her personal and professional past (although she never really separates the two) and relives some of her most traumatic experiences and then moves back seamlessly to her domestic life, reflecting on how these experiences shaped and often, harmed her. In one instance, when she first holds her son in her arms after a difficult, high-risk pregnancy and birth, she asks the doctor if her baby is dead.

She attributes being able to write about her experiences as one way that she didn’t descend into madness and suicide like many of her colleagues who covered the same wars as her – in Sarajevo, Sierra Leone, Afghanistan and countless others. Her husband, however, wasn’t so lucky.

Bruno is portrayed in her memoir as a rugged, dashing and charismatic figure who protects his wife with his seemingly indomitable courage, a warrior who fights until the bitter end – always the last man standing – and thrives on excitement, danger and adrenalin. Slowly, their marriage erodes as it becomes apparent he is falling victim to PTSD and alcoholism. Eventually, he enters rehab and AA, becomes sober and saves his own life. However, di Giovanni finds that they have both changed too much – the wildness, turbulence, chaos and passion has gone from their marriage and they separate, although remain close and share the parenting of their only son.

I recently listened to an interview with the author on the radio talk about her work. She was being interviewed by her long-time friend and former war correspondent, a Canadian woman, who said, at one point during the interview (I am paraphrasing here), “You know, I thought you had it all. You did what I couldn’t – I left that work because I couldn’t handle it. But you thrived with the dangerous, globe-trotting journalism job, the husband, the baby, the beautiful apartment in Paris – it was portrayed as an enviable life. I coveted it.”

To which di Giovanni replied that she kept up appearances and didn’t talk to anyone about her own suffering because of how all the tragedy that her family experienced as she was growing up was swept aside. Nobody talked about her dying or dead siblings, the drug addiction or other sorrows that plagued her upper-middle-class existence in New Jersey. “But there was so much mystery. We never talked about cousins who disappeared and died, about the problems in our own home: the bags of dope stashed in the cellar; the boys’ grades slipping or the fact they stopped playing sports and spent more time with bongs…We never talked about growing up, about what would happen when I left the painted black front gate or our home and went into the real world,” she writes.

di Giovanni is not looking for sympathy or pity as she lays her life bare. As a journalist of the highest calibre, she is committed to truth and portraying reality in the most raw and honest way she knows how.

Partway through her narrative, as she is coming to terms with her husband’s addiction and the unraveling of their ‘perfect’ life together, she asks the reader these pertinent questions: “Why do we deny ourselves reality? When is the right time to suddenly see the truth?” Indeed.

 

 

 

 

The. Best. News. Ever. (or Why I Love Chocolate)

I was so happy when I stumDarkChocolateHeartbled upon an interview with ethnobotanist (I don’t know what that is either) Chris Kilham who talks about the amazingness of chocolate in his new book Psyche Delicacies.

As a long-time, hardcore, incorrigible, chocolate addict, this is excellent news. I am only half-joking when I say I want to die by drowning in pool of melted chocolate. I hung onto his every word as he espoused the heath virtues of my drug of choice.

If what he says is true, then chocolate is good for our hearts – it lowers cholesterol and reduces platelet aggregation (say what?). The greatest concentration of beneficial substances in chocolate is pure cocoa, so we should eat chocolate that is dark and bitter.

I also learned from Chris that it is a soft drug and is psycho-active. It is loaded with compounds that affect brain chemistry and mood. For example, women eat more chocolate just before or during menstruation because at this time serotonin levels go down but chocolate helps to build them back up, resulting in an enhanced mood. Hmmm I always wondered why I craved chocolate during this time.

Of course, chocolate is also a love potion. It contains phenylamine which we naturally produce during orgasm or when we are in love, so eating chocolate mimics the brain chemistry of being in love. I guess the creators of Valentine’s Day already knew this.

Bottom line: don’t feel bad after your next chocolate binge. It is healthier and less addictive than crack. And a lot cheaper too. Bring on Easter!